JUBA, South Sudan (BP) — Two Christian pastors have arrived safely home in Juba, South Sudan, after an eight-month ordeal of imprisonment on fabricated charges of capital crimes in Khartoum, Sudan, and a ban on leaving the country, Morning Star News reported Aug. 19.
Peter Yein Reith, 36, and Yat Michael, 49, were acquitted of the crimes calling for the death penalty on Aug. 5 but were prevented from boarding a plane out of the country the next day. Sudan’s National Intelligence and Security Services (NISS) had issued the travel ban when they arrested the pastors, Michael on Dec. 14, 2014, and Reith on Jan. 11.
Although it was not immediately clear why the travel ban was lifted Aug. 19, Michael and Reith were transported from Juba International Airport to a Juba church for a service of thanksgiving.
“Thank God for their arrival home,” Michael’s wife told Morning Star News after the service.
South Sudan Presbyterian Evangelical Church (SSPEC) leaders welcomed the pastors, who expressed their gratitude to Morning Star News amid the cheering congregation. An international outcry erupted over their weeks-long incarceration without charges after Morning Star News on Dec. 28, 2014, broke the news of Michael’s arrest, and on Jan. 20 published the first account of Reith’s arrest.
“Thank you very much, Morning Star News, for your great role which led to our release from jail,” Reith said.
Reith and Michael were convicted of lesser charges and released on the time they had served. Reith was convicted of “establishing or participating in a criminal organization,” while Michael was convicted of “disturbing public peace.”
The SSPEC pastors had also been charged with spying and undermining the constitutional system, two crimes punishable by death, life imprisonment and confiscation of property; disclosure and obtaining information and official documents, punishable by two years in prison or a fine; blasphemy/insulting religious creeds, punishable by one year of imprisonment, a fine or no more than 40 lashes; and joint acts in execution of a criminal conspiracy.
Michael was arrested after encouraging Khartoum Bahri Evangelical Church; Reith was arrested after submitting a letter from SSPEC leaders inquiring about the whereabouts of Michael.
The Khartoum Bahri Evangelical Church had been the subject of government harassment, arrests and demolition of part of its worship center as Muslim investors have tried to confiscate church property. Police in North Khartoum on Dec. 2, 2014, beat and arrested 38 Christians from the church, releasing them later that night. A similar incident occurred Oct. 5, 2013, when Sudan’s police and security forces broke through the church fence, beat and arrested Christians in the compound and asserted parts of the property belonged to a Muslim investor accompanying them. Those arrested were released the same day.
Harassment, arrests and persecution of Christians have intensified since the secession of South Sudan in July 2011, when Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir vowed to adopt a stricter version of Sharia Islamic law and recognize only Islamic culture and the Arabic language. The Sudanese Minister of Guidance and Endowments announced in April 2013 that no licenses would be granted for building new churches in Sudan, citing a decrease in the South Sudanese population.
Sudan since 2012 has expelled foreign Christians and bulldozed church buildings on the pretext that the property belonged to South Sudanese. Besides raiding Christian bookstores and arresting Christians, authorities threatened to kill South Sudanese Christians who do not leave or cooperate with them in locating other Christians.
Sudan fought a civil war with the south Sudanese from 1983 to 2005, and in June 2011, the Sudan government began fighting a rebel group in the Nuba Mountains that has its roots in South Sudan.
Due to its treatment of Christians and other human rights violations, Sudan has been designated a country of particular concern by the U.S. State Department since 1999, and the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom recommended in 2015 that the country remain on the list.
Sudan ranked sixth on Christian support organization Open Doors’ 2015 World Watch List of 50 countries where Christians face the most persecution, moving up from 11th place the previous year.